In the context of some recent reads on psychedelic drugs, Laura Miller at Slate looks at Michael Pollan’s new book, How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.
In it, Pollan says that drugs such as psilocybin and LSD got a bad rap after some flawed scientific experimentation and images of burned-out, ’60s counter-culture hippies soured Americans on exploring the medical benefits these drugs might offer, suggesting that their mind-altering abilities might help free us from cognitive patterns that are holding us back.
After 40 years in the wilderness, psychedelics are once more the subject of serious scientific study, with early results suggesting that the drugs, when used under a therapist’s supervision, can help patients suffering from anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and both alcohol and nicotine addiction.
Pollan took a couple of research trips himself in the course of writing How to Change Your Mind, with results that are interesting only to the extent that they help him make sense of other people’s accounts of their own journeys. The meat of the book is its chapters on the neuroscience of the drugs and their evident ability to suppress activity in a brain system known as the “default mode network.” The DMN acts as our cerebral executive, coordinating and organizing competing signals from other systems. It is, as Pollan sees it, the “autobiographical brain,” and the site of our ego. The long history of people reporting the sensation of their egos dissolving while under the influence of psychedelics meshes with this interpretation. It’s an experience with the potential to both terrify and, paradoxically, comfort those who undergo it.
Why should this effect prove so helpful to the depressed, addicted, and anxious? As Pollan explains it, these disorders are the result of mental and emotional “grooves” in our thinking that have become, as the DMN’s name suggests, default. We are how we think. The right psychedelic experience can level out the grooves, enabling a person to make new cerebral connections and briefly escape from “a rigidity in our thinking that is psychologically destructive.”